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FCC’s Wheeler Testifies Before House Subcommittee, Defends Record on Net Neutrality

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WASHINGTON, May 20, 2014 – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler came under heavy criticism during a Tuesday hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, with many members expressing disapproval of the agency’s recent performance, particularly over the issue of network neutrality.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., criticized the agency’s “selective inaction,” warning that it was treading in “rough waters.” He criticized the agency for failing to complete its quadrennial review of broadcast ownership rules.

Walden also expressed disapproval of the move to reclassify broadband as a Title II, or common carrier, telecommunications services. Doing so would give the FCC authority to “second-guess business decisions.”

“The modern communications landscape bears no resemblance to the world Title II is meant to regulate,” Walden said. The reclassification of broadband service providers…will harm consumers, halt job creation, curtail innovation, and stifle investment… We should also be aware that [reclassification] opens the door for states to regulate the Internet.”

Other Republicans on the subcommittee shared Walden’s criticism. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., expressed frustration over the partisanship that the Commission had shown, citing reports of items being shared with Democrats 24 hours before Republicans.

“Regardless of political affiliations, commissioners must be given adequate and equal time to consider the items on which they’re going to vote,” Upton said.

Upton also urged a “light touch regulatory scheme” as the key to America telecom industry success. “Subjecting [broadband] to burdensome [regulations] is a leap in the wrong direction,” he said.

Others, particularly Democratic representatives, agreed with the premise behind net neutrality, but disagreed with what they called the FCC’s half-way approach.

“The time has come to end the legal gymnastics and stop the lobbying games being played by the big broadband providers,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. “You should use your Title II authority as a backstop authority to protect the open internet. If you want to proceed with Section 706, that’s fine – but you shouldn’t water down the open internet rules to fit Section 706. Instead, you should get the substance right and invoke Title II as an independent basis of authority.”

Wheeler defended the Commission’s actions, listing a number of areas on which the agency had made progress on, including the forthcoming incentive auction of radio frequencies. He also pointed to a successful ruling on emergency 911 texting, which allows deaf individuals to communicate with emergency responders, as well as a effort to regulate cell phone location information.

“As wireless usage increases and as it replaces… wireline connections inside, and as GPS usage has increased, there’s been a fascinating reality that location accuracy has actually declined,” Wheeler said. “We got a notice on how to [solve] that because that’s literally a matter of life and death.

As for net neutrality, Wheeler explained that D. C. Circuit court’s January 2014 decision affirmed the Commission’s authority for net neutrality under co-called Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This, he said, provided a “road map” to deal with the open internet.

“When the consumer buys access to the Internet, they are buying access to the full Internet and that’s what our rules try to protect,” Wheeler said. “[We ought to] explore the power granted by Section 706, keep asking how Title II fits in, but develop a regulatory process that looks forward, not backward, because what we need is a regulatory process for the 21st century.”

Grilling Wheeler, Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn said that his actions had inspired “a great deal of uncertainty” among content providers, including those offering telemedicine services.

Wheeler agreed that it was important to conduct cost-benefit analysis in decision-making.

“In this rulemaking, we specifically ask what are the costs of one approach or another and what are the benefits so that we can collect that information and have that kind of analysis.”

“Our effort is to represent the American people, not company A or B,” he said.

When asked what types of prioritization were acceptable, Wheeler replied that while the courts had asked the Commission to judge prioritization on a “case-by-case basis,” the Commission is now asking the public whether it should be judged “generically.”

Waxman expressed concern that asking the public when paid prioritization is permissible will result in “a lot of ambiguity” and a lot of litigation.

“I believe bright lines will be a lot better for the market and innovation,” Waxman said.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., questioned Wheeler’s motivations for only targeting ISPs and not content providers. He asked whether the Chairman had “an ax to grind” against broadband providers.

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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